Representation is a complicated concept. It means something different to everybody. Often, it can be a shallow attempt to address discrimination and the lack of inclusion of marginalized people in certain spaces. Entire diverse groups of a shared identity are often expected to feel “represented” by a single portrayal of that identity in popular media.
Personally, these are reasons that have made me avoid treating representation as a priority when it comes to fighting for justice for marginalized people such as myself. I started to ask myself: is this representation, or is this just for diversity points? Is this representation, or is this just a corporation trying to appeal to certain audiences for profit? Do I really relate to this portrayal, or is this just the first time I have seen someone like me portrayed?
This isn’t to say that representation does not matter. It absolutely does. But I would like to shift the perspective and focus on what feels like real representation to me, specifically when it comes to representation in film.
As an Asian American, I feel generally acknowledged by mainstream media. There are a plethora of Asian-led films from the past decade: Crazy Rich Asians, The Farewell, Minari, Raya and the Last Dragon, The Half of It, and Marvel’s recent installment, Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings. All of these were successful films, popular with not only Asian Americans, but with the general public of all ethnic and racial backgrounds. As an Asian American, I should be happy about this.
But as a Filipino American, I feel neglected by the film industry. I have felt at odds with the Asian American representation presented to me, because an overwhelming majority of these films are centered around East Asian characters/cultures or star many of the same Asian actors. According to this article written by Mary Beth Faller for Arizona State University News, “only 44 of those movies had a lead character who was Asian, Asian American or Native Hawaiian/Pacific Islander. And of those, 14 of the lead-actor roles went to one person — Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson.” These stats show just how limited “representation” really is for the Asian population, a group that consists of a large array of different ethnic backgrounds and cultures.
Am I supposed to feel seen when the characters on the screen look nothing like me? Filipino Americans certainly exist in film, but only as side characters, unseen voice actors, or characters who are not acknowledged as Filipino in the story at all. This kind of invisibility in media affects you psychologically, especially when it has persisted from childhood through adulthood. Intersectional identities also deepen the issue. As a Filipino American woman, I see even less of myself in film. As a queer Filipino American woman, even less.
This problem stems from a bigger issue in the film industry as a whole: Asian people and other marginalized groups are not represented nearly enough behind the screen. Amy Yee for Bloomberg writes that “more than 90% of respondents in the Coalition of Asian Pacifics in Entertainment survey said representation is inadequate both on-screen and behind the scenes.” We cannot forget the importance of the work that goes on behind the scenes to allow films to exist. What we see on the screen just scratches the surface. Behind it, there are hundreds of creators and workers who deserve just as much attention as the movie’s actors.
These people — directors, producers, cinematographers, editors, writers — have a huge impact on the entertainment industry and popular culture overall, so it is important that diversity is pushed for within these groups. “Asians, Asian Americans and Native Hawaiians/Pacific Islanders are underrepresented behind the camera. Across the time period surveyed, only 3.5% of directors were in this group (only three were women), along with 2.5% of producers and 3.3% of casting directors,” states Faller, showing just how severe this deficiency is in the industry.
The majority of movies with Asian leads also have Asian directors and producers — creators who also saw a lack of themselves in Hollywood and wanted to do something about it. Similarly, this lack of my own identities in film has inspired me to become involved in the industry myself. I figured that if these stories don’t exist, I can create them. My interest in pursuing filmmaking pushed me to research Asian American filmmakers, and I was pleasantly surprised to find so many, and to find that many of them are extremely successful in their filmmaking careers.
When watching the 2020 film Nomadland, I would not have guessed that it was directed by an Asian American woman. Learning about the director Chloé Zhao made me have the revelation that representation does not have to necessarily be on the screen, but that it can be behind it. Nomadland is a story following a white woman traveling through the American West after losing everything in the recession. It’s a beautiful piece of storytelling and visual media that really moved me emotionally, and even won Best Picture at the Oscars.
The film itself has nothing to do specifically with the Asian American experience and does not star Asian American actors, but the fact that it was directed by an Asian American woman fulfilled my need for representation in film, more than any of the movies I listed above did. Knowing that an Asian American woman’s story was given form through film gave me hope for the future of the industry and for my own future contribution to it.
Zhao won Best Director at both the Golden Globes and Academy Awards and then went on to direct the big Marvel project Eternals, making her the first woman of color to direct a Marvel movie. Zhao’s huge success in film makes me feel like my dreams to establish myself as a queer, female, Asian filmmaker are entirely possible.
Zhao is just one of many Asian Americans making their impact in the world of film. She is also one of many Asian filmmakers who do not necessarily make films centered on Asian cultures and characters, but are great filmmakers nonetheless; other similar ones that come to mind are Justin Lin, who directed Fast & Furious, and Kary Kusama, who directed Jennifer’s Body. (If you want to discover more Asian women in filmmaking, here’s a great list).
I have learned from my research that the most important representation can be in spaces hidden from the public eye: in the casting room, on the film set, in the director’s chair, etc.… If more Asian Americans are given opportunities to fill these different roles in the film industry, consequently more Asian Americans and Asian-centric stories will be put on the forefront of pop culture. I hope to one day join them to tell my own stories. Even though I still haven’t fully seen myself on the big screen, I am motivated to work my way to the point where I can change that for other people like me.
Len (they/she) is a senior studying Commercial Photography with a minor in New Media & Digital Cultures at Appalachian State University. They are planning to use their degree to pursue conceptual/non-traditional portrait photography, as well as documentary photography, and are also interested in exploring filmmaking. Len’s identity as a queer Filipina has made them passionate about using digital art to help other queer people of color tell their own stories. They want to use their technical and artistic skills to uplift & showcase interesting people from different backgrounds, and create narratives that promote social change and spread anti-imperialist/anti-capitalist messages. Their core values as an artist and as a person are the importance of empathy, radical love, community building & care, resistance to conformity & oppressive forces, and finding beauty in every individual’s unique story.